Friday, September 30, 2016

The Village Feudists

Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945)
From Theodore Dreiser: Sister Carrie, Jennie Gerhardt, Twelve Men

Palmer's Shipyard, Connecticut, c. 1910, oil on board by American artist Reynolds Beal (1867–1951). Noank shipbuilder Robert Palmer is featured in Dreiser’s story.
Published in 1919, Theodore Dreiser’s Twelve Men includes a dozen portraits of people the author admired. Many of the sketches were written in the first years of the century, after Dreiser had left his job as a reporter and during a period in which he was depressed by the sales of his first novel, Sister Carrie. Literary scholar Ellen Moers, in her study of Dreiser’s major works, writes:
Apparently the most effective therapy Dreiser found was searching out people about the ideals that produced their contentment. It was a strange use to which to put the interviewing technique he had once practiced as a journalist; but it was the literary as well as psychological technique that produced Twelve Men. Each portrait was a stage in his own quest for purpose, for what he once called a “stern conclusion.”
Fictionalized to various degrees, the twelve sketches depict both good Samaritans and individualists—and a few men who can be seen as both. The first six feature acquaintances who Dreiser regarded as successful; the final six are failures in spite of their virtues.

Perhaps the earliest written of the final six is “The Village Feudists.” Originally titled “Heart Bowed Down,” it was based on a 1901 interview with Elihu Potter (Elihu Burridge in the story), a curmudgeonly shopkeeper in the fishing village of Noank, Connecticut. The narrator investigates the mystery of how such an admired and upstanding man alienated so many of his neighbors, especially the town’s leading citizen, the real-life shipyard owner Robert Palmer. Upon the book’s publication, one critic wrote that “the best of the lot as psychology is probably ‘The Village Feudists,’ a study of the warping into marked eccentricity of an essentially fine and generous character.”

Almost universally praised by the critics upon publication (and still considered one of Dreiser’s greatest works), Twelve Men sold fewer than 4,000 copies. But, in an unexpected way, the book did find happiness for its author. S. E. Woodward, senior vice-president of a financial company in New York, was a fan of Dreiser’s books and for a while added a postscript to his business letters: “If you have not read Twelve Men, get it and read it.” Intrigued, Woodward’s secretary, Helen Richardson, purchased a copy, loved the book, and mentioned to her boss that Dreiser was actually her grandmother’s nephew—although she had never met him. “Well,” Woodward responded, “why don’t you go around and see him? If he were my cousin, I certainly would.” So in September 1919, with no introduction or advance notice, she rang the door of the author’s studio at 165 West 10th Street in New York. Five years later, he wrote in an unpublished sketch that, irritated by the disturbance, he nearly didn’t answer—but, after they exchanged greetings, he welcomed her “as I would a beautiful light in a dungeon.” Helen later recalled in her memoir, “I felt as if I had been looking for Dreiser all my life.”

The couple eventually traveled together to Los Angeles, where Helen managed to get roles in movies, including a supporting role in Rudolph Valentino’s first film, The Four Horsemen in the Apocalypse. Dreiser’s attempt to sell movie scenarios in Hollywood came to naught, but while they lived in California he began work on An American Tragedy. Theodore and Helen remained together for the next quarter century and finally married in 1944, the year prior to Dreiser’s death.

Notes: On the first page of the selection is a reference to Parson Thirdly, a character who appears in Thomas Hardy’s novel Far from the Madding Crowd and his poem “Channel Firing.” The parson’s name is a mocking reference to the habit of dividing sermons into enumerated paragraphs. Decoration Day (page 1043) was observed after the American Civil War as a time to decorate the graves of dead soldiers; after World War II, it became more widely known as Memorial Day. Founded in 1866, G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic) was an organization of Union veterans of the Civil War; at its height, there were hundreds of posts across the country.

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In a certain Connecticut fishing-town sometime since, where, besides lobstering, a shipyard and some sail-boat-building there existed the several shops and stores which catered to the wants of those who labored in those lines, there dwelt a groceryman by the name of Elihu Burridge, whose life and methods strongly point the moral and social successes and failures of the rural man. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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